The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Group launches effort to recall liberal prosecutors in Northern Virginia

Shown in December 2019 before they took office are, from left, Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.
Shown in December 2019 before they took office are, from left, Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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A new organization is launching a recall campaign against three liberal prosecutors in Northern Virginia, arguing they have failed to uphold the law and their policies have made their counties less safe.

Virginians for Safe Communities announced the effort Monday and said it hopes to collect by October the thousands of signatures necessary to begin the process of unseating Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Arlington, Steve Descano in Fairfax and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun, all Democrats. The prosecutors defended their work.

“We are launching this campaign to hold accountable the prosecutors who have taken office under a writ of reform but have gone too far,” said Sean Kennedy, a board member of the group. “They are continuing to flout the rule of law, failing to enforce the law and are endangering our families and communities.”

Kennedy, who has worked on Republican campaigns around the country and is a policy director for the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, is spearheading the effort along with former assistant FBI director Steven L. Pomerantz and Ian Prior, a Republican activist who helping lead the charge against the teaching of what conservatives see as critical race theory concepts in schools. Kennedy said the campaign is separate from his day job. All three board members live in Northern Virginia.

The group faces an uphill battle because Virginia’s little-used recall law has significant hurdles. The group would have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the people who voted in the last election for the office being recalled. That would mean roughly 29,000 signatures in Fairfax, 11,500 in Loudoun and 5,500 in Arlington.

It would then have to convince a circuit court judge in each jurisdiction at trial that the prosecutor has neglected his or her duty, misused the office or acted incompetently. Such a ruling would remove the prosecutor from office and trigger a new election.

Virginians for Safe Communities is a 501(c)(4) organization, which means it is not required to disclose its donors under federal law. Kennedy declined to say who has contributed money to the effort or how much was collected but described the campaign as “well-funded.”

Dehghani-Tafti, Descano and Biberaj were part of a wave of liberal prosecutors who were elected in 2019 on a promise of refashioning criminal justice system. They dropped prosecutions of marijuana possession, moved away from cash bail and promised not to seek the death penalty among other changes. Since then, state lawmakers have banned the death penalty and legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults.

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Kennedy said that Descano and Biberaj had failed crime victims by not pursuing some misdemeanor cases and that the turnover in their offices was too high. He criticized Dehghani-Tafti by saying the outcome she sought in the case of a man caught with a large amount of marijuana was too lenient.

All three prosecutors rejected those criticisms.

Descano said he had worked to build a fairer and more just legal system with the overwhelming support of Fairfax County residents. He said his office chose not to pursue some misdemeanor cases for a time because it was severely underfunded. The office has since received more funding for staffing and resumed those prosecutions.

“It’s no surprise that far-right ideologues seek to obstruct the reforms my team is implementing by engaging in a Trump-style effort to undermine the will of Fairfax County voters,” Descano said in a statement.

Dehghani-Tafti said the criticism of the marijuana case was unfounded. She reached a deal with a 20-year-old man who was arrested at Reagan National Airport in 2018 with 50 pounds of marijuana to plead guilty to two felony charges of felony possession with intent to distribute and be placed on probation. After finishing a lengthy term of probation and community service, the man would be able to withdraw the felony pleas and plead guilty to two misdemeanor possession with intent to distribute charges.

An Arlington judge initially rejected the deferred disposition as too lax, but after additional legal wrangling, another is now considering whether to accept it.

Dehghani-Tafti said the recall effort lacked legitimacy.

“They couldn’t (and can’t) win at the ballot box so are trying to impose their own will through a political end run around the democratic process,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote in an email.

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Biberaj said she has delivered on her campaign commitments and said Virginians for Safe Communities’ lack of transparency about its donors and donations suggests it is not a grass-roots effort.

“Our office is more diverse (in practices, experiences and demographics) than ever; we have built a victim centric policy and practice; we have increased the services directed at victims of sexual assault and domestic violence; and we have reduced the rate of incarceration for persons who do not present a safety risk to our community — providing millions of dollars in savings to our county,” Biberaj wrote in an email.

The recall is the second one targeting Descano and Biberaj. A group called Stand Up for Virginia launched similar efforts against both prosecutors in recent months. Kennedy said his group is not affiliated with Stand Up but supports its effort.

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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